December 29, 2002
A Tribute (Or Two) Of Sorts

I felt a little left out of all the mourning for Joe Strummer of The Clash, since I'd never heard of him and even his band was no more than a name to me. It's only now with the obituaries that I know they did punk, not disco or heavy metal. Thanks to Orrin Judd, I also find that I did have some small acquaintance with Strummer's work: O.J. calls "Train in Vain" "the archetypal rock single", and I've actually heard that one, on Dwight Yoakam's album "Under the Covers" (1997), though the authors' names meant nothing to me until now. In fact, it's my second-favorite cut on that album. The favorite also offered a surprise: it's a duet with Sheryl Crowe of "Baby, Don't Go". Until I heard it, I hadn't realized that Sonny Bono had ever written a song worth hearing. How the Hell did that happen?

Speaking of Dwight Yoakam, I only just noticed that quite a few Southern names are not English or Scottish but German, though disguised by phonetic spellings. The various permutations of Yoakam surely go back to the German surname Jochum, while Patsy Cline must have come from a long line of Kleins, and Stine (the surname of a former student in Alabama) must originally have been Stein. Are there other examples? And why was the spelling changed? Was there a generation or two of illiteracy along the way, or did an Americanized spelling just look better?

One more thing: My only acquaintance with punk is through the Ramones' first album, which came out when I was in graduate school and working in a record store on the side. The manager had dropped out of school at 13 and worked full-time (and then some) in record stores for 13 years since then. He claimed to have heard every rock album that had come out in that time, along with most of the soul, some of the jazz, folk, and blues, and even a little bit of the classical. (No country: this was on the South Side of Chicago, near the University of Chicago.) One day he came in with a stack of promos, gathered us all around, and said: "See dis album? Dis is de worst album ever made. Here, let me play it for you." It was The Ramones' first album, and I bought a copy right on the spot. But I could never take it at all seriously: "I'm a storm trooper in a stupor"? "Beat on the brat, beat on the brat, beat on the brat with a baseball bat"?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at December 29, 2002 06:54 PM

Well, you're not supposed to take the Ramones "seriously" -- though I am sure some have tried, and I'll bet a Google search could find many po-faced overly-serious treatises on the metacontext of the textural themes in "I Wanna Be Sedated."

Posted by: Andrea Harris on December 29, 2002 07:03 PM

Name changes: sometimes the name changes happened at Ellis Island, where the clerks did the phonetic spelling, and other times the families themselves did it to Americanize their names.

Posted by: Mark Byron on December 29, 2002 09:06 PM

You've never heard of Joe Strummer before? That's very queer . . .

Posted by: Nick O Teen on December 30, 2002 04:50 AM

Sonny Bono wrote two songs worth hearing: He's also responsible for the charming pop single "Needles and Pins," first made a hit by The Searchers. There's an excellent version on Tom Petty's Pack Up The Plantation--Live!, a duet between Petty and Stevie Nicks.

Posted by: Phil on December 30, 2002 12:23 PM

Growing up in North Texas there has always been a strong German contingent who, for the most part, were farmers. Many of them were forced to Anglo-ize their last names during World War I to avoid being branded (literally) German sympathizers.

Posted by: Hal on December 30, 2002 12:49 PM

Hal: Ditto for rural Iowa, where my ancestors changed their surname from Maass to Moss during WWI.

Posted by: markm on December 30, 2002 07:21 PM

With my entire geneology lost somewhere in the illiteracy of Tennessee and North Carolina a few generations back, I would offer that nothing more complicated than that is a good reason why some names undergo a change to something more phonetically obvious, especially when dialects and accents are taken into account.

Posted by: charles austin on December 30, 2002 07:52 PM

My last name is a phonetic variant of the good old German name Kaufmann. Because there aren't many people around with this variant(none in the L. A. phone book for example), I have the hypothesis that the change took place because the original Kaufmann/C ancestor was trying to avoid johnny law. This could be why some of the name changes you cite took place as well.

Posted by: Frank C on December 30, 2002 08:09 PM

Lots of German settlers in the Southeast, Doc, along with the usual Scotch/Irish. My family names are all one or the other (Hendrix, Dagenhardt, Hubbard, McAlister). And the Ramones covered Needles and Pins too, on the Road to Ruin album. Still can't believe that Joey and DeeDee are both dead. Well, I take it back - the only real surprise about DeeDee was that he survived his lifestyle choices as long as he did. But then again, I suppose I could say the same about myself when you get right down to it.

Posted by: Mike on December 31, 2002 01:18 PM

Needles and Pins? Wasn't that the Dave Clark Five?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on December 31, 2002 02:06 PM

Who is Joe Strummer and why does he matter?

Posted by: Mark on January 2, 2003 08:19 PM

H. L. Mencken has a large section in "The American Language" on how foreign names changed when their bearers immigrated to America. (Chapter 10, "Proper Names in America"). Says Mencken, contradicting popular historical legends like that of names being changed wholesale at Ellis Island or that of Germans Anglicising their surnames during World War I, "Changes in surnames go on in all countries and at all times. They are effected very largely by transliteration or translation...What changes names most is the abrasion of common speech." Surname changes are due to evolution, not revolution, according to Mencken.

Mencken gives example after example of changes, using surnames of well-known people at his time. Herkimer comes from Herchheimer, Waldo comes from Waldow, Poe comes from Poh or Pau, Armistead from Armstädt, Morton from Marttinen, Lane from Lehn, Custer from Köster, Wirt from Wörth, Pershing from Pfoersching, Rosecrans from Rosenkrantz, Longstreet from Langestraet, Hoover from Huber, Lincoln from Linkhorn, Albright from Albrecht, Steinway from Steinweg, Cronkite from Krankheit, Rockefeller from Roggenfelder, Stryker from Streicher, Studebaker from Studebecher, and Bloomingdale from Blumenthal.

My mother's maiden name, Aust, was originally Ast. Since the German A is pronounced "aw" instead of "ah", they added the U to conserve the pronunciation of "Awst" rather than accepting the natural change to "Ahsst". I have a friend whose surname is Yarick; this is obviously derived from Jarich. (He's of German origin).

The American Language is available on-line at either Bartleby or Gutenberg, I'm not sure which. I own my own copy of the 1937 edition.

Posted by: John on January 5, 2003 08:40 AM

From his profile, Dwight Yoakam looks Dutch and I'm betting that's where you get the variant on the German Jochum.

Posted by: Leslie on November 5, 2003 07:35 PM